As any sports geek knows, baseball greats Stan Musial and Ken Griffey, Jr., were both born in the same small town of Donora, Pennsylvania, nearly half a century apart. Oddly enough, they also share the same birthday, a coincidence that Alanis Morissette would no doubt mislabel as ironic. One might be tempted, if one were given to such silly thoughts, to conclude that Griffey is the authentic reincarnation of Stan the Man himself, save for the fact that Musial remains very much alive at 87.
I bring this up because our credulous national media have been buzzing for the last couple of weeks about the possibility of a similar coincidence occurring in the realm of politics. It seems that not only is GOP candidate Mike Huckabee an Arkansan, just like Bill Clinton, but he was also born in the same hamlet just northeast of Texarkana. What are the odds that two American presidents would both emerge from the womb in a little place called Hope?
Well, since you asked, let me go ahead and provide you with the precise odds: zero. There is absolutely no chance that Hope, Arkansas, will send its second native son to the White House in a span of sixteen years. Bill Clinton made it; Mike Huckabee will not. Anyone hoping for the alliterative, tongue-twisting ticket of Huckabee-Hutchison (as in Texas Senator Kay) will have to pull instead for McCain-McConnell or Romney-Roberts (Kentucky and Kansas senators, if you care).
First and foremost, Huckabee will not win the nomination because it is no longer 1976. That will come as a disappointment to those of you who stare longingly at your mothballed leisure suit praying for the return of roller disco. But a lot of things were possible thirty years ago that cannot occur today. Pregnant women could sip wine without being screamed at by total strangers. People could decorate their homes entirely in burnt orange and avocado. Men could cry in public. And longshot presidential candidates could capture their party's nomination.
Yes, Jimmy Carter was the last unknown, underfunded contender to win a couple of early primaries, rise in the polls, and ride that momentum to the White House. Carter's was the ultimate dark horse candidacy, featuring a man who started with zero name recognition north of the Chattahoochee yet ultimately vanquished such Democratic stalwarts as Mo Udall, Birch Bayh, and Henry "Scoop" Jackson. And look how well that turned out.
Campaigns were not nearly as expensive back in the 1970s as they are today. There was no need to go into the election season with a multi-million dollar bankroll. Just as important, the calendar of primaries was spread out over several months. A candidate who succeeded in Iowa and New Hampshire could wait for the resulting contributions to build, knowing that he would only have to contest one or two states every couple of weeks. New Yorkers didn't vote in 1976 until April, Californians until June. There was plenty of time to build an organization and develop a media campaign nearly from scratch. But that was then.
Let's say that Mike Huckabee does, in fact, manage to complete the Carter two-step, engineering upset victories in the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary. Momentum, he would have, but not money and organization. Even worse, there would be very little time to rectify the situation. Only a couple of weeks after New Hampshire will come Super-Duper Tuesday, a collection of 23 primaries that includes the delegate-rich states of California, New York, Texas, Illinois, Michigan, and New Jersey. The election will turn from retail to wholesale in record time, and some of the most expensive media markets in the world will be charging top dollar for Huckabee's folksy little Chuck Norris spots.
Under far more favorable circumstances, Gary Hart came out of nowhere to win the New Hampshire primary in 1984. Walter Mondale, the presumed Democratic front runner was left reeling, and it was widely anticipated that Hart was well on the way to securing nomination. But Hart lacked money and organization, so he had trouble sustaining his momentum. After winning the Florida primary, on a much smaller Super Tuesday, the surging candidate discovered that he didn't even have a complete slate of delegates in some of the Sunshine State's many counties. When Hart slipped, he slipped quickly, falling consecutively in Illinois, Pennsylvania, and New York, and watching Mondale claim the right to be pulverized by Ronald Reagan in November. (Paul Tsongas faced similar problems after winning New Hampshire in 1992.)
Hart's experience provides a second cautionary tale as well. Emerging from obscurity, the Colorado senator became suddenly very famous without being well known. That is, he enjoyed positive, but superficial, media coverage and garnered the unexpected support of millions of Americans who knew absolutely nothing about him. Ultimately, and not surprisingly, the reality didn't match the infatuated fantasy. Hart's vaunted "new ideas" didn't really amount to much, as Mondale pointed out by asking "Where's the beef?" in one of their debates (which remains, to this day, the only time a candidacy has been felled by a fast food advertising slogan). The candidate's image also suffered when it was learned that he had fudged his age, changed his name (it was Hartpence), and even altered his signature in support of his presidential ambitions. Shortly thereafter, Hart went into freefall and never recovered.
Mike Huckabee is currently undergoing the infatuation stage of his relationship with the GOP electorate. Well liked by the media, he is receiving the sort of positive press that you can't buy (which is a good thing, since he almost certainly couldn't afford it). Conservative Republicans, dissatisfied with their frontrunners' right wing bona fides, are rushing to embrace this Baptist minister, a man whose opposition to abortion actually predates the dawn of the 21st Century. Huckabee is, for the moment, the blank slate on which many of the party faithful are scribbling all their hopes and dreams.
The problem, of course, is that Huckabee is not a blank slate. He is a politician with a record. And much of that record will come as an unpleasant surprise to many of his newfound supporters. As governor, Huckabee was not a hardliner on raising revenue, a fact that is already starting to bring the well heeled "No New Taxes" loonies out of the woodwork. Perhaps even more damaging, as the last GOP debate demonstrated, Huckabee lacks an extremist position on immigration, having supported state sponsored college scholarships for sons and daughters of illegal immigrants living in Arkansas. This will not sit well with the party base. And then, of course, there is the growing controversy over the former governor's bizarre efforts to free one Wayne DuMond, a convicted rapist who, upon release, committed murder in Missouri. So far, Huckabee's responses to this matter have been weasely and unpersuasive.
Another candidate might be able to overcome the deluge of negative press and attack ads that is sure to flow in Huckabee's direction. Rudy Giuliani, for example, continues to survive despite a nearly uninterrupted series of scandals that would have embarrassed Dick Nixon. But Huckabee does not have the luxury of an overflowing war chest and a deep and loyal organization to keep him propped up in all fifty states.
His freefall, therefore, awaits.